Family and Chain Migration
Under current immigration law, family reunification is the primary pathway for legal immigration. Immediate relatives of adult U.S. citizens—spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents—immigrate outside quota restrictions. Adult citizens may also petition for siblings and adult married children while green card holders may petition for spouses and unmarried minor children. Seventy-five percent of immigrant visas are designated for family reunification, which is a key form of chain migration. This emphasis on family reunification for persons with legal entry status extends to the earliest, actively enforced immigration restrictions such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Even when immigration laws have distinguished on the basis of race and national origins, the rights of legal immigrants to travel in the company of their families has been protected. Citizens are also able to confer citizenship on foreign-born spouses and children, although women did not start securing these rights until the 1920s and could not sponsor family immigrants until 1952. Presently the majority of immigrants arrive through family preferences which have become targets for reduction by immigration reformers aiming to lower overall numbers of legal immigrants.
Family unity has been the most protected form of migration since the beginning of systematic U.S. efforts to impose immigration restrictions. Persons defined as having legal immigration rights were also presumed to have the right to the company of their families. Despite evolving conceptions of the kinds of persons allowed to immigrate, immigration law has consistently protected family migration. Even the earliest immigration restrictions honored this principle. For example, the Chinese exclusion laws, which singled out Chinese by race for almost complete exclusion, permitted exempted Chinese such as merchants, students, and diplomats to enter with their spouses, minor children, and household servants. The 1907-1908 Gentlemen’s Agreement, which barred immigration by Japanese laborers, allowed Japanese men already resident in the United States and who had sufficient financial standing to bring in wives from Japan through arranged marriages (picture brides) as well as their parents. This core value of preserving family unity remains central to immigration law in the twenty-first century.
The most consistent holders of rights to maintaining family unity have been European immigrant men. White men have been the only category of persons to hold citizenship rights since the founding of the United States, as discussed in the module on “Citizenship.” On the other hand, lesser rights of citizenship paralleled diminished immigration rights for women and certain racialized groups, particularly Asians. European women faced greater barriers to their immigration, citizenship, and family reunification, through the 1920s. Until that decade, European immigrants faced only narrowly framed, qualitative restrictions, such as bars against criminals, the feeble-minded, polygamists, prostitutes, anarchists, the illiterate, and those likely to become public charges (LPC). The most commonly enacted restrictions against persons subject to the likely to become a public charge (LPC), illiteracy, or immorality charges affected women traveling on their own far more frequently than they did men. Not until 1952 could women act as primary immigrants with the right to bring spouses and children as dependents.
Euro American men also held greater rights to confer U.S. citizenship on their immediate family members. An 1855 law allowed U.S. citizen men, but not women, to confer their nationality on alien spouses and later laws affirmed their right to confer citizenship on children born abroad. In contrast, the 1907 Expatriation Act stripped U.S.-born citizen women of their citizenship if they married alien men. This provision remained in place until women gained the franchise in 1920 with the 19th Amendment and when Congress enacted the Cable Act in 1922 to restore independent citizenship to women except for those who married “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” or Asian immigrant men.
Women’s access to legal immigration also frequently depended on their relationships to men with a majority of females immigrating as wives or daughters. This pattern gained importance when Congress imposed the severest immigration restrictions–the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act—which sharply lowered overall immigration through a system of national origins-based quotas that heavily favored older immigrant streams from western and northern Europe. Immigration rates plummeted, particularly from eastern and southern Europe, while immigrants from the rest of the world were almost completely excluded with Asians barred altogether. Men still comprised the majority of primary immigrants but while fewer of them gained legal permission to immigrate, those who did so more frequently brought their families because they could not travel back and forth as readily as before and because wives and minor children were not counted against the national quotas. When immigration became restricted more seriously, the gender balance of immigrants became more even and has even skewed slightly female because family unity, and especially immigration by spouses and fiancées, became and remain key protected categories. U.S. citizen men, including millions of military personnel stationed abroad, marry foreign women at rates higher than U.S. citizen women marry foreign men so that between 1930 and 1979, females accounted for 55 percent of all immigration to the U.S.
As immigration laws began liberalizing starting in the 1940s, family unification was a key priority, particularly for an expanded range of immigrants considered deserving of this basic human need. Greater racial equity, recruitment of highly-skilled workers, and political admission for refugee allies were also motivations for reforms. For example, during World War II the United States sent over twelve million military personnel overseas. While abroad, many got married or engaged but confronted onerous legal options and delays to bring back spouses or fiancées. Their patriotism and sacrifices required Congress to enact the War Brides Acts which allowed their spouses and fiancés to immigrate quickly as nonquota immigrants. Race-based bars to Asian immigration and citizenship were replaced on a country-by-country basis and Asian American veterans also gained the right to apply for the immigration of their war brides so that by 1947 Asian immigration also skewed female. Immigration by refugees and displaced persons also gained priority during the Cold War and they too were permitted to immigrate as family units.
The two general immigration laws passed during the Cold War, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act and the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, aimed to reform the discriminatory national origins quota system and racial preferences enacted in the 1920s. Both did so by enacting preferences for family reunification and recruitment of skilled workers designated by the Department of Labor as needed in the U.S. economy. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act retained the discriminatory national origins quotas but granted quotas and citizenship to all nations and their citizens. New immigration flows, and thus newly independent, recently decolonized nations in Asia and Africa, received immigration quotas, although these were all symbolically minute. All legal immigrants as designated by these categories, including women and parolees, could bring spouses and minor children who did not count against national quotas. In this way, family migration remained the primary mode for legal immigration.
The 1965 Immigration Act emphasized family or chain migration even more, by adding the family preference of siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens, and the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents to those with legal immigration rights. This law designated 75 percent of immigrant visas for family preferences. At a time when 85 percent of the U.S. population was of European ancestry, heavily favoring family reunification was projected to maintain the historic predominance of immigrants from Europe. However, generous U.S. aid facilitated the rapid recovery of economic prosperity and political stability in these regions and Japan, thereby reducing motivations to immigrate to the United States.
Instead, highly educated and skilled migrants from previously barred regions of the world such as Asia and Africa immigrated through the employment preferences and then brought extended families through family reunification. Since 1965, the majority of immigrants have come from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa with family preferences accounting for 65 percent of all legal immigration. With the legalization of same-sex marriages in 2013, spouses and fiancées in same-sex couples became eligible to apply for immigration.
The causal relationship between stricter immigration regulations and higher levels of migration by families and permanent settlement in the United States has contributed to the twenty-first century’s growing problem of unauthorized immigration. The 1965 Immigration Act for the first time imposed numeric caps on immigration within the western hemisphere. [Pathways to legal immigration since 1965] As in the 1920s, this heightened restrictiveness discouraged circular migrations by working-age men who traveled to work, but not necessarily settle, in the United States. Once their movements became subject to quotas, these workers chose to reduce their mobility in part by bringing their families to reside permanently in the United States. Central and South America became the sources of the highest numbers of legal immigrants to the United States even as numbers of unauthorized immigrants from these regions also rose sharply. Such high levels of unauthorized immigration are likely to continue until the United States diminishes its employment of cheaper workers from neighboring countries, or reforms its immigration restrictions to accommodate the working conditions of temporary workers.
In the twenty-first century, Congress has repeatedly failed to overhaul a dysfunctional system of immigration because sufficient consensus cannot be reached on the kinds of immigrants that should be welcomed or barred, and how the necessary measures might be enacted and enforced. While recruitment of highly skilled workers retains general support, family unification has come under attack because it comprises the bulk of legal immigration and now originates primarily from non-European countries. If overall rates of immigration are to be reduced, family reunification preferences present the largest targets. Debate continues, however, about the role of immigrants in contemporary U.S. society. Many question the goal of reducing immigration, which has been hitting historic highs, and admitting immigrants primarily on the basis of established credentials for highly skilled employment rather than family criteria as has been the practice in recent decades. Despite arguments to the contrary, the data suggests that regardless of immigration pathway, immigrants are employed at slightly higher rates than U.S. citizens and engage less in criminal activities. To accomplish significant and badly needed reform, both advocates for and critics of immigration must gain sufficient consensus about the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy and society to move forward in developing a system that serves national interests while treating actual and potential immigrants humanely.
 Filipinos were the only Asians to retain entry rights, as nationals from a U.S. colony.
- Turn and Talk: have students read the quotes aloud. With a partner, students will discuss what is common among the quotes.
“increasing apprehension among our citizens … about the moral principle involved when we keep children and spouses apart from fathers and husbands for many years by immigration barriers.” –Eisenhower, 1956
United States had “been built by immigrants from other countries” and that “[humanitarianism] itself calls for action to bring about a reunion of immediate family members under preferential quotas.” –Nixon, 1960
“the most important immediate objective of immigration policy is the reuniting of families.” “We have a social obligation to bring these families together” –JFK, 1961
- Ask students to consider the dates of the quotes. How might the historical context affect how we understand the quotes?
Commentary by historian Paul Kramer: “New Cold War arguments about family unity also bolstered the cause. Helping families to reunite would attract skilled, talented people who would help the United States beat the Communists while sending the right messages out into the world about the United States as a humanitarian society” (Washington Post, June 26, 2018)
1. Print out each law/policy/court case connected to Family Reunification (short summaries-adapted to grade level if needed). Divide class into groups and give each group one set. Have each group try to put the laws/policies/court cases in chronological order.
2. Announce the actual chronology and have each group fix their timelines.
3. Defining “Family”: Present an excerpt from US v. Windsor (2013) and ask students to consider how this court ruling defines “family,” what this ruling reveals about how “family” has been defined, and how this affects immigration in the U.S.
Sample Excerpt from Justia
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.
Two women then resident in New York were married in a lawful ceremony in Ontario, Canada, in 2007. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer returned to their home in New York City. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor. Windsor sought to claim the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was barred from doing so, however, by a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes a same-sex partner from the definition of “spouse” as that term is used in federal statutes. Windsor paid the taxes but filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of this provision. The United States District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that this portion of the statute is unconstitutional and ordered the United States to pay Windsor a refund. This Court granted certiorari and now affirms the judgment in Windsor’s favor.
5. Ask students if there is anything else they would want to add to their themes.
6. Students will examine the following graphs and charts:
-Percentage of immigration based on family reunification: From Ruth Wassem, “U.S. Immigration policy: Chart book of key trends” (January 2013)
-Percentage of family reunification immigration by sending region
–Question: What are some conclusions that can be made based on these graphs?
- Students will research “family reunification” and “chain migration” online and chart out the different websites and content they find. With a partner, and keeping in mind the themes noted by the class across the laws/policies/court rulings, students will discuss why they think the two searches yield different results.
-Note: If reading level is a challenge, have students use newsela and adjust the reading levels as needed.
This was the first law to define eligibility for citizenship by naturalization and establish standards and procedures by which immigrants became US citizens. In this early version, Congress limited this important right to “free white persons.”
This law was a major shift in U.S. immigration policy toward growing restrictiveness. The law targeted Chinese immigrants for restriction-- the first such group identified by race and class for severely limited legal entry and ineligibility for citizenship.
Legislated a few months after the Chinese Exclusion Law, this immigration legislation expanded the ranks of excludable aliens to include other undesirable persons and attributes such as "convicts," "lunatics," and "those likely to become a public charge."
Congress renewed the Chinese exclusion laws and expanded enforcement mechanisms by requiring that Chinese prove their lawful presence in the United States by carrying a Certificate of Residence, a precursor of the green card system, or be liable for detention and deportation.
This Supreme Court case established the precedent that any person born in the United States is a citizen by birth regardless of race or parents' status.
Under the principle that women assumed the citizenship of their husbands, this act stripped citizenship from U.S.-born women when they married noncitizen immigrant men.
Rather than enacting racially discriminatory and offensive immigration laws, President Theodore Roosevelt sought to avoid offending the rising world power of Japan through this negotiated agreement by which the Japanese government limited the immigration of its own citizens.
After women gained suffrage with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Congress swiftly enacted this law to restore citizenship to U.S.-born women who had married noncitizen husbands and thereby lost their citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907.
To further limit immigration, this law established extended "national origins" quotas, a highly restrictive and quantitatively discriminatory system. The quota system would remain the primary means of determining immigrants' admissibility to the United States until 1965.
Congress enacted exceptions to the national origins quotas imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924 in order to help World War II soldiers and veterans bring back foreign spouses and fiances they had met while serving in the military.
In contrast lawmakers' widespread indifference before World War II, after the war, under pressure from the White House and Department of State, Congress authorized admissions for refugees from Europe and permitted asylum seekers already in the U.S. to regularize their status.
The McCarran-Walter Act reformed some of the obvious discriminatory provisions in immigration law. While the law provided quotas for all nations and ended racial restrictions on citizenship, it expanded immigration enforcement and retained offensive national origins quotas.
Dissatisfaction with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act inspired support for this legislation which provided 214,000 visas to refugees, primarily from Europe but with 5,000 designated for the Far East.
This law added more exceptions to immigration restriction by national quotas by categorizing international adoption as a form of family reunification.
This law opened the door to immigration by highly skilled workers from countries with low immigration quotas, anticipating the Immigration Act of 1965's emphasis on employment preferences.
This law set the main principles for immigration regulation still enforced today. It applied a system of preferences for family reunification (75 percent), employment (20 percent), and refugees (5 percent) and for the first time capped immigration from the within Americas.
To address the problem of unauthorized immigration, Congress implemented through bipartisan agreement a multi-pronged system that provided amnesty for established residents, increased border enforcement, enhanced requirements of employers, and expanded guestworker visa programs.
Trying to cope with the long-term residence of millions of unauthorized immigrants, this executive order provided protection from deportation and work authorization to persons who arrived as minor children and had lived in the United States since June 15, 2007.
This executive order issued by the Obama White House sought to defer deportation and some other protections for unauthorized immigrants whose children were either American citizens or lawful permanent residents.